Essay exams are a part of college that most of us cannot get away from. Whether it be an English, History, or Sociology class, a lot of professors expect us to be able to convey what they’ve taught us through written word. And the sheer thought of “the essay exam” can drive us into a panic. But, this shouldn’t be the case! You’re a fabulous student, and all you might need to a little advice on how to prepare for an exam like this. Getting prepared for a task like this isn’t necessarily easy, however, with the proper guidance, and a little bit of effort, you too can succeed in this type of examination. Below, I have laid out some steps for students to take before the exam and during, so that the anxiety will subside. Testing is not fun for anyone, but if you prepare yourself, you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re a smart, capable student who already has the building blocks to be successful in your classes.

Before the exam:

There are a few ways that professors work with exams like this. Some give out generalized study guides for students to work through so class information is being reviewed before the exam. You might get a professor that says, “some of these topics will be in the form of ‘short answer.’” This means you need to go over all the information enough so that you’re comfortable with it all and are able to talk about each subject in at least some detail. (come back to this)


Other professors will give more of a head’s up and will hand out a list of the questions that will be asked on the exam. In my experience this works two ways, some teachers provide a list of, say, 5 questions, and tells students only 3 of them will need to be answered. Or the professor will tell the students that all 5 will be on the exam. In both cases, the student’s responsibilities are laid out clearly for them, and they can start working through the essay exam at home, so they are well prepared. If this is the case, there are some things the student can do to get ready to relay the questions already asked, by doing the exam ahead of time at home.

Read the instructions/questions carefully, as they contain keywords that your instructor is expecting you to complete in order to get full credit. Keywords that are common include:

  1. Discuss
  2. Analyze
  3. Evaluate
  4. Compare/contrast
  5. Main evidence for…
  6. 2 examples of…

These key words are important because they dictate how long your exam questions will be, and they dictate how much you need to study. If you have to, say compare and contrast, you need to know the differences between two or more ideas and why these differences matter. Or in the case of “main evidence for…” you need to know the why a certain concept is valued through direct evidence. If you are unsure of what keywords your professor is asking of you, ask them, or look it up. Asking questions is a main part of going to school, and you need to be comfortable doing so.

What you’ll do next is to create a generalized outline for the questions being asked. This may mean you need to pour over your book again or hit the library databases, so you can find all the information you need. This might also be a good time to create a study group with your fellow classmates so you all can be successful through collaboration. The outlines you create need to contain the keywords your professor is asking for, along with a generalized thesis/topic sentence. This could be as simple as “X concept holds value in X discipline because of X and Y.”

Right before the Exam:

Before you go in for your exam, it might be helpful to do a bit of freewriting on the course information. This can look any way you want it to, because it’s only for you to get your mind started on the information you’ve already learned. Getting the mind flowing is something that helps aid in retaining information. If you aren’t thinking about the information before the exam, it becomes harder to recall that info because of stress the body takes on during testing. I think we’ve all been there, sitting down at an exam and the mind blanking on everything that you’ve worked so hard to learn. Freewriting can alleviate this, even slightly, so you’re better prepared to drag information out of that stuffed brain of yours.

In the exam:

As a lefty, I absolutely hate pencils because my hand inevitably drags graphite over the rest of my work. But essay exams should be written in pencil, so corrections can be made if necessary, or if you suddenly want to add more information in.

A few tips before you test:

If your exam is more than just essay questions, say containing multiple choice or true/false questions, do this part of the exam first. The questions are easier to get through, and they always seem to contain some great information that will be useful to you in the essay part of the test. Your professors want you to succeed and so a lot of them hide the answers (or at least part of them) to the essay portion in the other material. This also helps with the mind-blanking that may or may not arise.

Follow a writing process. At the MSU Denver Writing Center, we tell students that it doesn’t matter what your writing process is, as long as it produced the results you want. During an essay exam, being mindful of your time is the most important. You aren’t able to sit an absorb the information and think about brainstorming for forever when you only have an hour to get 50 multiple choice or T/F questions answered plus 3 essay questions. You need to use your time wisely, so you can complete everything! Below is a quick step by step to ensure you are keeping on track and getting as much information down as possible.

  1. Like I mentioned above, if there are multiple choice or T/F questions in your exam, do those first.
  2. If there are multiple essay questions to choose from, make an easy choice. Don’t choose the question you struggled most with, but the ones in which you know the most about.
  3. Create a small outline for those questions on a scrap paper, starting with the easiest of the questions you chose (or all of them in case you have to answer them all)
  4. Form a thesis and pick supporting data/examples/concepts. This is the time you review the multiple-choice questions you answered if you realize that you already answered the question short hand, above.
  5. Write quickly, and maintain a clear simple structure:
    1. intro/thesis
    2. supporting info
    3. conclusion
  6. Reread and correct errors, or add forgotten info (if you recall anything more, which is exactly why you used a pencil!)
  7. Once you’ve completed these steps for each of the essay questions, your essay exam will be done, and you can turn your exam into your professor and get out of there.
  8. Go relax and do something for yourself. Whether that be getting some fresh air, caffeine, sugar, carbs, etc. Whatever you do to reward yourself, do it, because let’s face it, you just rocked that exam, and you deserve a reward.


I really hope this information helps out in preparing for the dreaded essay exam. And I hope this shows you that it shouldn’t be something that you dread, because with a little preparation, you are ready to tackle this kind of writing assignment.


Happy Writing,

Aubrey Baucum

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